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BENCHMARKING IN BRAINSTORM
Asko Karjalainen 2002

“Our task is to try to redefine benchmarking by using new concepts and surprising metaphors.“

D uring the last decade quality assessment phenomenon called benchmarking has expanded very rapidly.( By using the expression “assessment phenomena“, I will now underline the importance of reflection. Benchmarking must be set to the test of the creative and critical thinking.) Benchmarking stories are told all over the organisations, also in the public sector. And some stories they are! They are success stories about growing efficiency, great improvements, with an undertone of enthusiasm and promising visions. In those narratives benchmarking is introduced as the modern management tool as well as the most effective quality enhancement method. It seems that benchmarking really works. Why is it so? There may be many practical reasons like “building on the work of others makes sense“, “it can lead to cooperation“ or that the method is concrete and well documented (Keehley, et.al 1997)

However, it should be self-evident that any method adopted from the business life, is most likely to fail in defensive organisations like the universities.( Some further critics of the benchmarking, see for example Gooden & McCeary, 2001, Dervitsiotis, 2000; Palfreyman, 1999).) Surprisingly enough, this seems not to be true with benchmarking. There is an increasing interest to apply benchmarking in the higher education organisations (Schofield, 2000). The unexpected reaction compels us to set the philosophical question, what is the hidden nature of the benchmarking process?

What is the secret of benchmarking? In the Enqa-workshop group of benchmarking experts approached the subject under the heading of “benchmarking philosophy“. During next pages I will utilize some ideas of our “creative morning session“. To create something new, useful and far-reaching is the task of the reader now. In this article I only give some incentives based on the workshop results.

DEFINITIONS

In the literature benchmarking has got many definitions. I have divided those definitions to three uniting categories: practical definitions, existential definitions and metaphorical definitions.

Practical definitions tell rather in prose what the benchmarking is or what activities it includes:

Benchmarking “is the systematic study and comparison of a company’s key performance indicators with those of competitors and others considered best-in-class in a specific function“ (Dervitsiotis, 2000).

...“is a way of comparing a product or process against others, with reference to specified standards“ (Pepper, Webster & Jenkins, 2001):

Existential definitions try to connect benchmarking with the experiences, emotions and basic processes of the human existence. Those definitions bring the method closer to our ordinary living world suggesting, that benchmarking is nothing but a more or less formalised dimension of our natural everyday interaction.

“it is, at bottom, a systematic way of learning from others and changing what you do“ (Epper 1999)

It “is actually a matter of imitating successful behaviour“ (Karlöf & Östblom 1993)

“Benchmarking is a form of human being’ s natural curiosity with which s/he explores the possibilities of cooperation and friendship.“(Karjalainen, Kuortti & Niinikoski 2002)

Benchmarking is a learning process, which requires trust, understanding, selecting and adapting good practices in order to improve. (One team in Enqa-workshop, 2002)

In so far there are no really strong metaphorical benchmarking definitions, which would indicate that researchers, consults, managers and other benchmarking users merely see the method as a technical question. Metaphorical definitions, by using metaphorical expressions, could provide new and astonishing perspectives. They could provide a surprising and a revelatory angle to the nature of benchmarking or give a sudden insight to the inner meanings of the method. “State of mind of an organization“ is an example of a weak metaphorical expression:

“it is the state of mind of an organization which encourages the continuous effort of comparing functions and processes with those of best in class, wherever they are to be found“ (Zairi & Leonard 1994).

But why would we not develop stronger ones? What if we called the benchmarking as “the shortcut through the forest of the quality assessment“, “the flower of the organisational curiosity“ or “the envious energy between the managers“. Each of these “shocking“ metaphors implicates a very different benchmarking conception and benchmarking process. Metaphors are tools for creating self-awareness. When starting a benchmarking project, why would you not search your thoughts and create your own metaphor. The metaphor matters in our post-modern world of narratives.

TRUE OR FALSE BENCHMARKING?

Benchmarking literature sometimes uses the concept “true benchmarking“. One challenge of our conceptual adventure now is to explore if there is such a phenomena at all. It is clear that there are numerous types of different benchmarking methods and styles. Here we have some examples of attributes, which benchmarking experts have given to the benchmarking method. Benchmarking can be:

-competitive-collaborative-outcome-oriented-bureaucratic-qualitative-quantitative-independent-experience-seeking-process-oriented-functional-internal-external-spying-copying-creative-visionary|-benchmark-oriented-functional-generic-explorative-co-operative-dialogical-implicit-explicit-academic-international-touristy-horizontal-vertical-ranking-oriented-improvement-oriented-diagnostic|

Free combination of these attributes can produce a huge amount of variations for methodological framework. Teams of enqa-workshop were keen on trying to define the distinction between the “true“ and the “false“ benchmarking. The true benchmarking is always improvement oriented. Negotiation, collaboration and process for mutual understanding are necessary parts of it. In the true benchmarking organisations and people learn from each other and an active dialogue flows. It has explicit and open goals and the decision making process is (as) clear (as possible). True benchmarking is always creative. Adapting best practices means not the same as copying them.

The “false“ benchmarking instead is ranking oriented or merely explorative without interest in improvement. It has hidden purposes and it may be even spying. Nor is touristy visiting true benchmarking. Fuzzy goals and undefined process are typical false benchmarking constituents. Performance measurement by using some benchmarks moves into true benchmarking when it defines targets for improvement by identifying best practices and adapting them to achieve continuous improvement in one’s own organisation (see also Fine&Snyder 1999; Palfreyman 1998).

PATHS OF BENCHMARKING

But finally, do such a qualities as “true“ or “false“ really exist in the benchmarking sphere? Should we instead use the term “benchmarking-like activities“, which will flourish at the conceptual space of the benchmarking constituents. In that space there are many philosophical paths through which the benchmarking activities flow. I introduce the prototype of the benchmarking space in the tabular form:

S O U R C E S|
OWNER|EXTERNAL|INTERNAL|SHARED|CUSTOMER|
INTEREST|TO QUALIFY|TO COMPARE|TO IMPROVE|TO WIN|TO COOPERATE|ENERGY|
SEEKING FOR|STANDARDS|BENCHMARKS|BETTER PRACTICES|BEST PRACTICES|JOINT TOPICS|TARGET|
PROCESS|RANKING|ACCREDITATION|COMPARING|(BENCH)LEARNING|STYLE|
OUTCOME|QUALITY PRICES|CERTIFICATES|COOPERATIONDEVELOPMENTCOMPETITION|ALLIANCE|RESULTS|
Q U A L I T Y C U L T U R E S|
Table 1. Benchmarking space

As can be seen in the table, the benchmarking space emanates between the sources and quality cultures. The sources give the reasons and the agents for the benchmarking. Quality cultures construct the social context of the benchmarking sphere. It is also noteworthy that all the entities in grey area have the dialectic characteristic to act as an element for both of the sources and the cultures. The same entities form the theoretical forces, which cause the tension for the particular benchmarking method creation. The outcomes and the results of the benchmarking process will create changes on the quality cultures, which have impact to the sources, and the “circle” goes round again.

The table in itself is more of an artistic image than an academic product. There is a lot of unexplained semantics in it, which I certainly left to the critical reader for creative interpretation. The table draws attention to the fact that benchmarking is not an unambiguous method. It has many different sources, many different processes and it can lead to multiple results.

Benchmarking process in the higher education context is not the same as in the business life or in the public sector overall. It may not be even the same between the universities in different continents. There is a great difference between American and European universities, for example. Higher education in Europe is mostly arranged with the close contact to research, whereas in the United States there are more teaching universities than research universities. The idea of the scientific community - the quality product of the continental philosophy - with it’s universal values of truth, collectivistic, objectivity and criticism gives mode to the academic action in the European context. Members of the Enqa-workshop were predictably quite critical of the ranking oriented benchmarking-like activities. Hard values of ranking may be incompatible with European spirit of the scientific community, where as the cooperation, discourse and knowledge tradition are more convenient values for it.

Perhaps there is a kind of social order to the European true benchmarking. Possibly there were some elements of it present in Enqa-workshop. Was the great metaphor very nearly reached? In Finland there is an old proverb, which says, that: “The salmon is worth of fishing, even if you would not get any.“ The same, I believe, is true of the benchmarking philosophy. It is worth trying.

POST SCRIPTUM

There was a lot of social energy in Enqa-workshop. The most inspiring moment was to collaborate in teams with the people coming from different universities and from different countries. A similar kind of inspiring stimulus may be one of the reasons, why benchmarking stories mostly are enthusiastic. When the evaluation processes often are very bureaucratic and paper-based, benchmarking process can offer more living interaction and emotional stimulus, which both are the most important factors in a meaningful learning process. Getting the benchmarking passport to a strange culture is always a fascinating adventure.

REFERENCES

Keehley, P, Medlin, S, MacBride, S & Longmire, L. 1997. Benchmarking for Best Practices in the Public Sector. San Francisco CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers

Schofield, A. 2000. The growth of Benchmarking in Higher Education. Life Long Learning in Europe. 2.

Bohte, J. & Meier, K.J. (2000). Goal Displacement: Organizational Cheating. Public
Administration Review. Vol. 60, 173-182.

Coleman, R. & Viggars, L, (2000) Benchmarking Student Recruitment: The UCAS Institutional Planning Service. Teoksessa: Jackson, N. & Lund, H. Toim. Benchmarking for Higher Education. Society for Research into Higher Education & Open University Press.

Dervitsiotis, K.N. 2000. Benchmarking and business paradigm shifts. Total Quality Management. Vol 11, p.641-646.

Epper, R. (1999). Applying Benchmarking to higher education. Change, p.24-31.

Fine, T. & Snyder, L. (1999). What is the difference between performance measurement and benchmarking. Public Management 80:1.

Gooden, S.T & McCeary, S.M. (2001) That Old-Time Religion: Efficiency, Benchmarking, and Productivity. Public Administration Review. Vol 61. p.116-120.

Grant, R. (2001). Improving Service Quality with Benchmarks. Educause Review.Vol.
36,s.12-13.

Hodginson, L. (2000). Benchmarking Key Skills Using National Standards: the open University Experience. Teoksessa: Jackson, N. & Lund, H. Toim. Benchmarking for Higher Education. Society for Research into Higher Education & Open University Press.

Jackson, N. & Lund, H. (2000) Toim. Benchmarking for Higher Education. Society for Research into Higher Education & Open University Press.

Karjalainen, A.; Kuortti, K.; Niinikoski, S. (2002). Creative Benchmarking. University of Oulu & Finnish Higher Education Evaluation Council. University Press of Oulu. Karlöf, B & Östblom, S. (1993). Benchmarking: a signpost to excellence in quality and productivity. Chihester Wiley. Palfreyman, D. (1999) Benchmarking in Higher Edducation: A Study conducted by the Commonwealth Higher Education Management Service. Book Review. Perspectives, Vol. 3, 71-72.

Wan Endut, W.J, Abdullah, M, Husain, N.(2000). Benchmarking institutions of higher education. Total Quality Management. Vol 11, p.796-799.

Zairi, M & Leonard, P. (1994). Practical Benchmarking. The Complete Guide. Chapman & Hall. United Kingdom 1994.…...

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